Devon’s “Branding Campaign”

The alderman’s newsletter today asks for comments from the community on a branding campaign that it’s hoped will bring business to Devon Avenue. A project of the Special Services Area #43 (SSA #43), the Rogers Park Business Alliance, which administers the SSA, and the alderman, you can go to a meeting or take the online survey to give your opinion. I used the online survey. I don’t know that the community’s opinions will matter much, if at all.

It’s clear that lots of time, money, and effort have gone into the branding concept and its expression. But I believe a branding campaign is the wrong approach at this point. Shabby stores, so-so merchandise, vacancies and boarded-up buildings, too many grocery stores and cell phone stores, the absence of true diversity and real choices–these need to be remedied before we start promoting Devon as an international marketplace. The relentless campaigns of the past few years branding Devon as Little India have deprived the merchants east of Western and west of California of recognition and thus real opportunities to build their businesses; they have no representation on the SSA, and the proposed branding campaign doesn’t recognize them either.

I think the first priority is building a business district worth a marketing campaign.

This will be a problem given the alderman’s lack of interest in economic development and the fact that the SSA is run by and for the benefit of Indian business owners. I’ve been tracking the businesses on Devon since 2014, and in that time have found that buildings and storefronts remain vacant for months–even years–before yet another sari shop, cell phone store, or grocery opens. When I check the building ownership for these properties, I find that they are Indian-owned. It’s no accident that only Indian businesses are permitted to rent storefronts on that stretch of Devon.

Devon used to be known all over the City and suburbs for its magnificent retailing. The neighborhood had everything–dress shops, toy shops, restaurants, men’s clothing stores, shoe stores, kids clothing shops, a hobby shop, linen, barber, and beauty shops, Crawford’s Department Store, a stock brokerage, bakeries and cigar stores, among other retailing offerings. In 1974, when Patel Bros. opened its first grocery store on Devon, it was welcomed to the mix. But as Indo-Americans bought the properties along Devon, , only Indian businesses were permitted to rent the storefronts. Do the Indian owners discriminate against non-Indian tenants? Yes, they do. It’s clear, and it’s illegal. I’ve tracked it for too long to believe otherwise. And I’ve talked with at least one non-Indian prospective business owner who wasn’t able to rent.

Maybe the RPBA, the SSA, and the alderman can work on that.

Here’s another hint:

An international marketplace sells quality goods from around the world. Diversity is in the merchandise, not in the merchants.

Devon includes store owners from around the world, but their businesses–which could thrive and become successful–are doomed to failure because they do not get the support and assistance they need. Many  are woefully under-capitalized and need access to funding as well as basic marketing, merchandise display, advertising, and retailing skills.  Devon is not a road in some dusty village where a single store sells everything from milk to suitcases. It’s a middle-class neighborhood in Chicago, and middle class people do not patronize stores with dusty bags of rice in the windows, or sun-faded boxes. If the alderman, the RPBA, or the SSA really want to build a business district rather than promote Little India, they would contact the SBA, the City’s business development office, and the State of Illinois for assistance in creating such training and making such resources available to merchants in the entire SSA area  (Leavitt to Kedzie on Devon, Arthur to Granville on Western).

Creating a “branding campaign” for the current dreary array of vacancies and shabby little shops selling so-so merchandise is a mistake. Mislead people once and you won’t get a second chance.

Build a business district that’s truly remarkable and it will sell itself.

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3 thoughts on “Devon’s “Branding Campaign”

  1. I think the problems go beyond ethnicity. I agree it would be a better experience with more traditional shopping and or restaurants and bars mixed in but to get to that point you don’t start this way. And you certainly don’t ask for community input if you aren’t going to listen. Silverstein lacks the ability to see how her own actions, some would say accomplishments prevent the Devon turnaround she’s looking to achieve. Let me explain. The only businesses she approves are fast food. Take the Wendy’s for example (the service is awful by the way, matching the food). You put anywhere USA next to Devon which she’s trying to claim as unique and it doesn’t work. Worse yet that stretch of Western from the McDonald’s down to the Wendy’s has three fast food restaurants in that stretch which is pretty dense as far as Chicago goes. Only wards on the Southside can match the 50th for fast food. So, why does this matter? Personally this isn’t the end of the world to me but to other people it looks tacky. Worse yet, the area needs to attract Millenials. You do this and Devon brands itself eventually. Big Picture—-she needs to start getting a younger demographic. But this isn’t happening and it should as the area has a nice collection of reasonably priced bungalows. What I am about to say may or may not be true but a friend of mine that is active in West Rogers Park dealings said she denied the owners of BBQ Supply Company the opportunity to expand and make a brew pub in the abandoned building next to the future home of the library. Now this was really stupid. These people have the kind of business you want to support. Plus they bring people into the area. So what’s the point in marketing if you shoot down businesses that want to come here because of personal bias? The point I am trying to make is branding won’t work as she’s hell bent stuck in her ways.

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    • A very good analysis–thank you. I’ve heard the story about BBQ Supply from others; during her first term, when no one knew what to expect, a group asked her about bringing in clothing stores like Gap, and she dismissed the idea with the claim that GAP wouldn’t be interested in our neighborhood. The worst shopping area is Touhy, block after block of vacancies and storefront churches. It’s not that residents won’t support businesses that have the right goods to sell, but that the alderman isn’t interested in economic development of any kind anywhere in the ward. She does nothing to help new businesses. Joe Moore does “Follow Me Fridays” where he visits new businesses and meets with his constituents informally. Debra seems to be afraid of meeting people from the neighborhood, and it’s impossible to imagine having coffee–let alone a beer–with her. Thanks for writing.

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  2. OMG one only needs to take a walk around the crumbling, filthy, half-empty Gateway Mall on Howard to see the result of RPBA’s “vision”. This was the one thing they have ever actually accomplished and it sucks. You should fear for the future of Devon Ave with these mopes at the helm.

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